Facing The New- Major Changes We Choose
One does not have to look far to find information on dealing life’s unexpected changes. Self-help books, websites, mental health counseling, and even television shows offer assistance in dealing with unforeseen changes. Examples of these kinds of changes may include:
• Losing a loved one
• Losing a job
• The end of a relationship, or a relationship changing
• Natural disasters
• Financial struggles
These types of changes call for almost anyone to seek help from outside resources and they can surely test our internal resilience. Not all unexpected change is necessarily negative, as one can imagine some good changes occurring to us like a sudden financial windfall, though the ones that are major challenges have been largely focused on in popular media and psychology. But, what about change we intentionally seek out? Is it guaranteed that a change we choose comes with only positive feelings? Let’s do a thought experiment and see:
You have been working hard and doing everything you can to be promoted to a higher position at your workplace. This position comes with a 50% raise, better benefits, an office with a view, and an assistant. Your phone rings, and a person many steps above you in the corporate ladder lets you know they were impressed with your past work and the great reviews your coworkers gave you. The position is yours! Elation washes over you and you spend that day and evening celebrating the life changing event that you sought after coming true. It takes 24 hours to hit you that this new positions comes with some new responsibilities: 60 hour work weeks instead of 40, a cut-throat environment where your coworkers are no longer your allies but your competition, and a demand that you be available 24/7 to answers calls from clients. You knew all this going in, but on Sunday evening the you start to feel anxious about the impending start of your new position. “Am I ready for this? Is this really what I want at this point in my life? Will my social, family, and personal time be ruined by these new responsibilities?” You are not considering turning down the offer, but you also begin to feel that same type of overwhelming feeling of unpreparedness that comes when major changes occur.
It can be challenging to admit to others that your great new opportunity, one that you worked tirelessly to achieve, is now scaring you. You may have spoken so highly of the hypothetical situation of receiving this opportunity to friends and family, and the thought of telling them that you are terrified or struggling with the change seems unacceptable. What are you going to say, “I got exactly what I wanted, and I am having a hard time with it”? Exactly. That is what you have to say to yourself, and subsequently to your support systems. There are a few domains in which we can analyze why even change that we want can be difficult.
The Brain and Change
From a biological perspective, new information and changes in our routines are no different whether they are coming from something we wanted or something that happened to us that we were not originally working towards. Your sensory systems: touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell, send the new information to your brain. Your brain is used to certain things, and when these changes do not match the old things the brain expects it can react with resistance. Resistance in the brain often translates into anxiety and stress. Using the promotion example earlier, imagine your brain “watching” you wake up earlier, work later, be in work-mode most hours of the day, and having people around you gunning for your job instead of being on your team. The alarm bells will ring saying, “this isn’t what we are used to, what happened to our safe routine!?” You may have heard the old adage that change is scary. Well to your brain, all change can be scary whether you wanted it or not. So, what can you do help your brain adjust to this new world?
Let’s use another example outside of career.
You have decided that your physical health has been on the backburner for too long. You have some free time in your schedule and for the short-term future can dedicate time to a new, but intense, workout routine. It started with a major rush of motivation but now you are noticing your body and brain not reacting how you thought. Instead of immediately feeling less stressed, and sleeping better, you feel tense and having trouble sleeping. Keep these things in mind:
• New habits or routines take time for the brain to integrate, whether you are enjoying them or not.
• Not feeling immediately “better” after making changes does not mean the changes are mistakes. The adjustment period may mask benefits, but they will appear when the new changes become the norm.
• Your brain is trying to keep you safe. It knows that before the changes you made you were alive and not in major danger, so it is weary of anything that moves you out of that safe space. Over time, your brain will realize you are not in danger due to repetition.
What Am I Losing?
Almost any situation you are in has some benefit to it. Besides extreme examples, you wouldn’t be living the way you are if it didn’t provide some positive benefits. Change jeopardizes the positive benefits you experience your current life. Even things about your life you may consider less than ideal are giving you stability. Using the previous example of living in a less than healthy way in terms of fitness, let’s say you eat a lot of fast food and unhealthy things. What are the benefits of this?
• I know it tastes good to me
• I know it is easy to get and takes little effort
• I know I can afford it
• It fits into my routine
So when you decide to make a positive change you desire, changing your diet, you are jeopardizing these positive aspects of your old habit. You are improving yourself but are losing some things that previously made your life stable. Transition is difficult and you will notice these difficulties even as you see the benefits of your positive changes. Counseling and therapy are great resources in dealing with these feelings. Therapeutic theories have known for years that replacing old with new always comes with unexpected feelings of doubt. A counselor can help you keep in mind the benefits, the temporary nature of the feelings of loss of the old, and the motivation to keep pushing forward in your change.
What’s Working FOR Me During Change?
You are committed to changing something in your life. You have grasped the fact that even the most positive changes are not going to come without challenges and feelings of longing for the old ways. What do you have in your favor? Well, the first and most obvious thing working for you is your motivation. YOU decided to make a change! That is powerful. You may have heard that in counseling and therapy that a necessary condition for successful outcomes is that the “client is willing to change.” Famous psychotherapists like Carl Rogers and Carl Jung both felt this was an unassailable fact of human improvement. If you are looking to make a change yourself, you are already in this state! It can take a long time and a lot of suffering for a person to reach this point, but if you are moving to make your own changes you are already there. You feel motivated and a burst of energy that helps the early stages of the change move quite quickly.
The “honeymoon” period of change is also something working in your favor. This refers to the time where the early results of change are seen, and you feel a drastic positive reaction to these results. Here is another hypothetical example of a change you may seek and an example of the honeymoon reaction:
You have been off the dating scene for quite a while. You weren’t miserable being single, in fact it had many great points (see previous section on What Am I Losing?). However, the time feels right and you are motivated to make romantic connections again. The initial motivation pushes you to use dating apps or community gatherings to connect with people and you go on three lunch dates with different people over the course of a month. This first month you feel thrilled. You are connecting with people again, you feel valued, and the new possibilities with these new people are intoxicating to think about. This is the honeymoon period of change.
There is a notion, supported by evidence, that the honeymoon period of change may carry some risks. The positive feelings may “satisfy” your initial desire for new feelings and cause you to fall back into your old ways since you got your “fix” of feeling happy. There is truth to this, and it is important to utilize friends, family, and/or your counselor to keep your perspective regarding the change not being complete during this period. But the honeymoon period is not bad in and of itself! You are feeling good, and good feelings build upon one another. It can be your launching platform to fully dive into your new lifestyle and embrace how good it makes you feel. Let your honeymoon phase of change serve as a second round of motivation.
Lastly, resilience is a major tool working in your favor when you are seeking change. Resilience is often characterized as the ability to deal with “bad” things in one’s life. It is certainly useful for that. It also refers to one’s general ability to deal with change, whether good or bad. It may seem counterintuitive at times to tap into your resistance when you are making positive changes, but it is often a necessary act. Here again, counselors and your support systems can be great in reminding you of tapping into this internal resource. Resilience is a complicated psychological idea, but its application is quite simple. A quick final example would be:
You are committed to changing your career. You have made the first steps and the first round of motivation has led you to early success. Before this honeymoon phase wears off, you delve into your inner resilience and begin mentally prepping for any doubts that may arise. You know they may come, and if they do you are ready with answers to them. The first time an inner voice says “I can’t do this new work schedule,” and you intentionally decide to implement the tools you have in place to assess if that statement has any truth, what you can do about it, and where you can turn to other areas of your life to manage this doubt.
Some books on dealing with change:
If you are planning to make positive changes in your life, or have already begun and wish to work through the challenges of these changes, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.